The symbolism is rich.
A significant and historic building on Auburn Avenue is being brought back to life with the upcoming move of Georgia Works, a nonprofit that provides housing and employment to homeless men who are drug- and alcohol-free and willing to work.
Georgia Works will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October by having served nearly 1,100 homeless men since its inception.
At the same time, Georgia Works is close to completing a $13 million capital campaign to move to the historic Odd Fellows building at 250 Auburn, which is being renovated to house the nonprofit’s operations.
Chris Patterson, board chair of Georgia Works, said he was attracted to the work with the nonprofit based on its outcomes.
“You start with someone who was living on the street, and when they were done with the program, they were back with their family, have jobs and a place to live,” Patterson said. “They basically are restored as a person.”
The history of the Odd Fellows building is eerily tied to the mission of Georgia Works. The Grand United Order of the Odd Fellows opened its headquarters in 1912. The founding motto of the organization founded in 1843 stated: “for the purpose of aiding and assisting each other, when but for the helping hand of a brother and friend in sorrow,” according to David Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center and Easements Atlanta (which owns the façade of the building).
Georgia Works “will incorporate their mission of ending homelessness, criminal recidivism and dependency through programs aimed at personal development in good habits, work ethic and character by instilling self-sufficiency. We knew that they would be the stewards of the building and the community legacy,” Mitchell wrote in a letter to the chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit-M.
Georgia Works was founded in 2013 by Bill McGahan, then 51, who had retired as an investment banker and wanted to try a novel way to help solve the homeless problem in Atlanta.
“Georgia Works doesn’t really fit into a category of traditional homeless providers,” McGahan said. “That’s what makes it different, and I think what makes it successful.”
The nonprofit helps homeless men overcome barriers that they face, such as being formerly incarcerated, back child support, lack of identification and medical issues. “All we ask is that they are clean – no drugs, no alcohol – and be willing to work,” said McGahan, who started Georgia Works partnering with the Gateway Center, where it currently is based.
“The Gateway has been a terrific partner over the years,” McGahan said. “But Georgia Works continues to grow. We decided we needed more space.”
McGahan, who still serves on the board, stepped down as chair nearly three years ago when he knew the organization would be in good hands with Patterson and Darlene Schultz, who became CEO in July 2020.
“Chip and Darlene have taken it to the next level,” McGahan said. “It’s just been so personally satisfying to do this. When I knew we had Darlene and Chip, I knew it would be okay. I’m just so pleased with what they’ve done.”
Before becoming CEO of Georgia Works, Schultz had served on its board since 2014. Previously, she served as CEO of 3Keys Inc., where she oversaw affordable housing for people with limited incomes.
“My hope is this story mostly includes Darlene and her great vision, drive and compassion,” Patterson wrote in an email. “She loves everyone. She has worked behind the scenes forever without any recognition. Bill, myself and the board would have had zero chance of making any of this happen without her.”
Schultz recently spent a couple of hours giving me a tour of the Odd Fellows building as well as visiting her new neighbors along Auburn Avenue. She saw opportunities at every corner – how the four retail spaces on the first floor could help provide jobs for the participants in Georgia Works. For example, one space likely will become a “meat and three” restaurant, which would cook meals for the men in the program.
“All the retail spaces will be accessible to the public,” Schultz said. “There are a lot more choices for food here than there are at the Gateway Center.”
The “intake” center also would be on the first floor, which will showcase the marble on the walls and the floor. Homeless men come to the intake center, where they are asked to take a urinalysis test to show they are drug- and alcohol-free and willing to work. The first 30 days are pre-program days when they learn what is expected of them. They are tested repeatedly while they are part of the program.
“Once they hit that 30-day mark, then we place them on assignment,” Schultz said. “We work with 25 organizations that provide jobs. They get paid $7.40 an hour, which is not taxed. They get paid every Wednesday. We take $100 out for administrative expenses, and we take $50 to put in a savings account. Meals are included for anyone in the program.” The balance of the participants’ paychecks can be spent or saved as they please.
After being in the program for about a year, the participants graduate. And Georgia Works offers them “graduate” housing, now in homes the nonprofit leases. There will be 62 graduate units in the Odd Fellows Building.
The results so far have been encouraging.
“When the men graduate, 100 percent leave the program with housing and a full-time job,” Schultz said. “A year after they graduate, 85 percent are gainfully employed and housed.”
The new location will allow Georgia Works to nearly double its operations. The program will be able to serve nearly 300 men a year in the new location.
Georgia Works was able to secure a $5 million grant from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, which permitted the nonprofit to buy the Odd Fellows building.
The Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation has given a $1.5 million grant to the campaign. Invest Atlanta recently approved $1.25 million from the Eastside Tax Allocation District to Georgia Works. It also anticipates receiving $2.5 million in New Market Tax Credits. Its board is donating $150,000 over the next three years. So far, Georgia Works has raised a total of about $11.4 million, and it has several pending applications to foundations to complete the campaign. It also has secured a bridge loan from Truist to help with cash flow.
Once it finishes demolition on the interior of the building, it will get a building permit to transform most of the building into housing units for participants and graduates. Most of the units will be 250 square feet with two beds, a kitchenette and a bathroom. Schultz anticipates it will take up to a year from now to move into the building.
“The organization now is firmly planted,” said Patterson, who founded Ameripark, where he got to know several homeless men and knew he wanted to work on solutions for homelessness after he sold his company in 2015.
“I enjoy the mission. I enjoy the accomplishment. I enjoy working with Darlene and the board. It’s win, win, win,” Patterson continued. “If someone wants to dig out of a hole, we want to help. The downside is you can’t help everybody.”